Often when we hear the terms “leader and leadership,” images of a commanding person leading an organization or a country comes to mind. While that is one of the possibilities, let us expand that notion to include anyone who is charged with any kind of responsibility and delivering results.

In this case, we all become leaders; parents are leaders of a family unit charged with raising decent children, teachers are leaders charged with the responsibility of educating students to pursue worthwhile lives, CEOs are leaders charged with the responsibility of leading a vision for the benefit of stakeholders and employees in the organization. Leaders are based on their given responsibilities and expected results.

In short, we cannot be alive and not lead in one way or another since we manage our lives by constantly making decisions, every one of which leads to certain behavior intended to deliver results we are hoping for. This makes us all leaders. And if our responsibilities include the well-being of others, our decisions and action must be well-thought-out. This is where the notion of self-leadership becomes important because until a person learns to lead his or her self effectively, they will never be able to lead others successfully, and more importantly, to enable others to become self-leaders.

What is Self-Leadership?

The classical definition of self-leadership is described as the process by which you influence yourself to achieve your objectives through having self-awareness, self-confidence and self-belief. Once gained, you are able to have a sense of who you are and your true capabilities which will help you achieve your objective in a realistic manner.

The question is how can we gain those abilities beyond simple advice? What parts of ourselves do we need to influence so we can lead ourselves toward our objectives?

Neuropsychology, the study of how brain function influences thinking, feeling and behavior provides us with practical answers.

The Brain-Mind-Thought Connection

The brain creates our thoughts and feelings and commands our motives, decisions, and performance — which then become the foundations of how we manage and progress in our lives. Because everything happens through the brain, to lead ourselves effectively we must first learn to lead our brain in a productive way.

How can we productively lead our brains? Brain function creates our thoughts which quickly turn into emotions based on which we make decisions and behavior follow. Therefore, once we learn to beneficially direct our emotions, our thoughts become more productive, and our behaviors more appropriate and aligned with achieving our objectives.

Clearly, emotions are what we need to influence and the rest will follow. This is where the concept of emotional regulation comes in.

What is Emotional Regulation?

The word emotion, derived from Latin, means to move. Emotions – energy in motion – arise when we perceive a given situation as either relevant or not relevant to our foremost instinctual goal: to feel safe and secure.

Emotions generate behavior by sending chemical signals to the muscles and organs, energizing them and preparing us to act physically. Emotional regulation, therefore, is the skill of managing our emotions so that our behaviors that follow are appropriate and beneficial.

We also know that emotions are the agents that change the brain in real and lasting ways. We now have a three-way thought-to-emotion-to-brain cycle. Among the three, our thoughts are the only part we can directly manage.  Hence by appropriately regulating our thoughts and therefore our emotions, we can change our brain’s neural formation and function for the better. This process is also known as self-directed neuroplasticity.

Self-leadership is therefore the skill to monitor and productively direct our thoughts. This, in turn, influences our emotions, improves our brain function, and we behave more in our long-term interests.

How do we develop self-leadership skills? It is a three-part process:

  1. Monitoring: Listening to our thoughts without accepting them as true or acting on them;
  2. Directing: Deciding which thoughts are worth paying attention to. In other words, not reacting to every thought that passes through the mind, and
  3. Choosing: Selecting productive thoughts.

Practicing to productively direct our thoughts begins to change the neural formation and activity of the brain for the better. In doing so, we are developing the core skill of Self-leadership.

Aristotle clarifies the importance of this point in saying: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”